How to: Make a simple Egyptian, Greek or Roman costume
Updated: May 13, 2022
This “How to:” guide is for those readers wishing to recreate simple yet effective historical costume. It is primarily aimed at teachers wishing to inspire their pupils on “Wow Days” when dressing up is the order of the day. In our experience, in most UK schools, that might be for history topics on the ancient Egyptians, Greeks or Romans.
The basics Our evidence for ancient costume comes from the interpretation of statues, relief carvings in stone, frescoes, mosaics and many other forms of imagery. Surviving examples of textiles are incredibly rare, and often later in date, but can guide a recreation. Depictions of ancient Egyptian costume show a wide variety of styles, many with elaborate cuts, decorative pleats, fringed edging and intricate belting. Some examples are clearly made of very sheer, revealing material. For most people we suspect a far simpler design would suffice so we suggest using the same basic style for Egyptian, Greek and Roman costume.
We are calling this “Greco-Roman” style not to ignore the Egyptians but because the ancient Greeks and Romans essentially wore the same basic garment. Both men and women wore a tunic (Gr: khiton; Lat: tunica); a rectangle of cloth attached or sewn at the shoulders and sewn from the underarm to the hem. The difference between the sexes is the overall length of the garment and where the hemline ends. For women, dresses are typically shown full length with the hemline at least to the ankle. By contrast, Greek men tended to wear their khiton (tunic) quite short and above the knee. The same can be said for Roman soldiers where the hemline is roughly three to four finger widths above the knee. Quite simply, a short tunic allows more freedom of movement in exercise, manual labour and in warfare. For ordinary Roman men, however, their tunic typically ended about midcalf. This might be slightly higher for children and young men, or if you are portraying a “servant”.
Material For most people, tunics were made of wool, predominantly, or linen. The wealthy could afford very finely woven cloth, with some examples being especially sheer or translucent. For our purposes, the basic garment is easily reproduced from a single (c. 180 cm x 275 cm), double (c. 230 cm x 275 cm) or king size (c. 275 cm x 275 cm) bedsheet that provides a ready-made, and hemmed, starting point. For the more authentic look we recommend using linen in preference to cotton. The latter was known in the ancient world  but because it is a tropical and subtropical plant, cotton agriculture did not spread outside the Indian subcontinent until thousands of years after its domestication . Cotton, therefore, would have been a luxury item for most Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
A simple pattern We will focus on a pattern for a woman’s dress as the men’s tunic is essentially a shortened form either with or without short sleeves. In its simplest form the dress is a folded rectangle of cloth with the two halves attached in several ways. Dresses worn by ancient Greek women may well have been left open along the line B-C (refer to the diagram below), with the two halves of the dress belted in place. If you are feeling particularly risqué then you could follow the ancient example, but we would suggest, for modesty’s sake alone, that the seam along B-C is sewn.
In the diagram below, the head hole is formed between D-E which, from experience, needs to be at least 25 cm to 30 cm (c. 10 to 12 inches) wide. When folded in half, and if you decide to sew the shoulders together between A-D and E-F, then the cloth must be cut at F-G to allow the right arm to go through. If you prefer to simply pin the garment at the shoulders with brooches at D-D and E-E, then the cloth would fall on each side and cutting the F-G armhole would not be necessary .
Belts At a minimum the garment should belted at the waist. Excess material can be pulled up and bloused over the belt to achieve the desired length of the tunic. Sometimes women’s dresses were belted twice, once at the waist and again at the hips, giving a double-bloused effect. Similarly, they are also depicted belted high under the breasts, or cross-belted over the chest and tied at the waist.
Colour In terms of colour, white is the simplest colour but not necessarily one favoured by the ancients. The popular impression from television and film is that white clothing predominated, but this is something of a mistake stemming from the prejudices of antiquarians in the past who deliberately removed paint from statues because they considered white marble more aesthetically pleasing. In more recent (enlightened?) times, scientific research has revealed that, particularly on Greco-Roman statues, bold colours were used to create a life-like appearance. Do not be afraid, therefore, to choose solid colours to reflect dyed woollen cloth. If possible, “pastel” shades are preferable to reflect ancient wool dyeing techniques as modern dyes produce colours that are too vivid.
In contrast to wool, ancient linen did not take dye well so most Egyptian linen kept its natural shade or was bleached white. Depending on what is available or your budget, it really does not matter whether you choose a colourful look or a simple white cloth, but do try to avoid printed patterned fabrics.
Sashes For some inexplicable reason many Greek and Roman "costumes" for sale come complete with sashes that are either pinned and draped over one shoulder passing through the belt, carried in the arms like a shawl, or looped diagonally about the body from one shoulder. Examples are shown below that we think have been inspired by various costume designers creating a certain “look” for film and television. Said designers were probably trying to create the palla as shown worn by our Roman matron above, but singularly failed to understand its significance or how it should have been worn. No respectable Greek or Roman woman would leave the house without being modestly dressed. The palla therefore covered the body, and probably the head too, both to protect her against the cold or indecent display, and against any “evil eye” or improper advance. Naturally the palla would have been a heavier woollen cloth in cold weather and of thinner material (linen, cotton, or silk) in warm weather. Having said it was worn about the body, it can be loosely draped over the arm when a woman was seated or in a more relaxed pose.
A final note on underwear From our imagery sources it is nigh impossible to know whether underwear was typically worn. It is highly likely that in hotter climates, such as Egypt and around the Mediterranean, underwear was forsaken to keep cool. Now we are all for “authenticity” but in a school or at a public event this might not be a wise choice. Lycra shorts or something similar are recommended but just be aware that dark coloured underwear can be visible beneath white garments. Again this may not be the look you are after.
We hope this “How to:” guide proves useful. If so, feel free to like, comment or share.
1. Cotton fabric has been found at Nimrud in Iraq (8th to 7th-centuries BC), Arjan in Iran (late 7th to early 6th-centuries BC) and Kerameikos in Greece (5th-century BC).
2. Maestri, N., (February 2021), "The Domestication History of Cotton (Gossypium)", ThoughtCo., retrieved July 3rd, 2021.
3. In other words the arms pass through the gaps A-D and E-F.